At the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, when asked what form of government the convention had provided for our new nation, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic — if you can keep it.”
Can we keep it? This question is more relevant today than ever before.
We are living in an era the Founders feared. Implicit in Franklin’s response is the idea that a republic such as ours requires constant nurturing, attention and care, and that its strength depends almost entirely on the wisdom and prudence of the governed. It’s no wonder, then, that our republic is in trouble.
COVID-19 will ultimately subside, but America’s epidemic of civic illiteracy is here to stay — and we can’t ignore it any longer. If we want to keep the republic the Founders gave us, we must acknowledge that our country is in the midst of a full-blown civics crisis and take decisive action to fix it.
You don’t have to look far for evidence of this crisis. Simply consider the statistics: According to the Nation’s Report Card, only 15% of students are proficient in American history and a mere 24% are proficient in civics. Meanwhile, only one in three Americans could pass the citizenship test, which immigrants pass at better than a 90% rate. Poor civic education leads to low civic engagement and declining trust in public institutions.
This is just one reason why only 17% of Americans trust the government to “do what is right” most of the time. So what happened? How did our civic education get to such an abysmal state? And how can we correct course?
It all starts with making key reforms to our education system, which has strayed far from its original mission. The original mission of America’s public schools was to instill civic purpose and knowledge in the next generation. As the great American educator John Dewey said, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” Our schools were built to inculcate a love of American values and an informed patriotism in our nation’s youth. But today, it seems they do just the opposite.
Texts of dubious historical accuracy — including The New York Times 1619 Project and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” — have damaged the teaching of social studies and civics in secondary education. By focusing almost exclusively on our nation’s sins, these texts give students a jaded view of history and take little to no account of the indispensable role the United States has played in securing freedom, democracy and human rights around the globe.
To be sure, it’s important that students have a holistic understanding of the past. But to say that slavery was the impetus behind America’s Founding (as the author of the 1619 Project asserts) is bad history and even worse civics. Students will never love a country they’ve been taught to despise. That’s why a historically sound, well-rounded civics curriculum — one that acknowledges both America’s weaknesses and its strengths — is necessary for a healthy democracy.
Of course, improving history and social studies curriculum isn’t the only answer to our civics crisis. We must also make the teaching of civics a greater priority in our schools.
Over the last two decades, civics has taken a back seat to STEM education — both in terms of funding and time devoted to classroom instruction. If numbers are any indication of how much we value civic education, then we value it hardly at all. Consider that each year, the federal government invests more than $50 per student on STEM education and a pitiful 5 cents per student on civic education. Judging by this metric, civics is 1,000 times less important than STEM. If we value civics so little, then it makes sense that American democracy is on the ropes.
In an effort to address this crisis, the Hatch Center — the policy arm of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation — launched an initiative to re-center civics at the heart of America’s public-school system. This initiative included the publication of a report outlining the root causes of our civics crisis and concrete steps policymakers can take to fix it. Many of our recommendations — from increased funding, testing and teacher training — have been incorporated into the Civics Secures Democracy Act (S. 879/H.R. 1814).
This ambitious bipartisan, bicameral proposal — introduced by my former colleagues Sens. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat, alongside House Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, and Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican — intends to help schools rediscover their original civic mission by providing much-needed funding for innovation in civic education.
By authorizing $1 billion annually for civics grants and requiring testing for history and civics in grades 4, 8 and 12, this bill sends a strong signal that civic education is just as important to the future of our republic as STEM and language arts. And it does so while also protecting the right of state and local educators to make their own decisions regarding curriculum.
Revitalizing the teaching of civics in our schools is essential to sustaining the American experiment over the long term — and the Civics Secures Democracy Act aims to do exactly that. That’s why I call on my former colleagues to pass this legislation without delay. It’s critical that we succeed in this endeavor because at stake is nothing less than the future of our country. Whether or not we will be able to keep the republic the Founders gifted us remains an open question. But our best hope is to make civic education the first priority in our nation’s schools.
Orrin Hatch is chairman emeritus of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. A Utah Republican, he served in the U.S. Senate, 1977-2019.